At some point over the last few months, Kayla Rose Dehnert stopped being part of a nuclear family of four and became part of a family of hundreds and hundreds.
This large loving family has formed in the name of Curing Kayla Rose, a 7-year-old Lu Sutton second grader who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in early November. She has since gone on to have surgery to remove the tumor and undergone aggressive radiation treatment and chemotherapy at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee.
“What if I were Denny?” Mark Fujiwara wonders, refering to Kayla's father. “What if my kid was Kayla and was going through this?
"When they first heard they would potentially have to go to Tennessee, they worried about money and how they would pay their mortgage and their bills. ‘That shouldn’t even enter your mind,’ I told them. ‘Tend to your family. If you have to worry about that, you’re not 100 percent tending to Kayla.’”
Denny Dehnert understands what Fujiwara said about others putting themselves in Kayla’s place. “We never expected any of this to happen to us. No one ever does. But the truth of it is that no one ever expects it to happen to them. It does not discriminate,” he says.
“I think that is the reason that Kayla has touched the lives of so many. In her, parents see their own children; in us they may see themselves. You can't help but do whatever you can because it could just as easily be you.”
Nicole Choi, a friend of that small family of four, stepped in as the de facto matriarch of the entire burgeoning family, immediately sending out the call for help. That call for help spread, well, like wildflowers, throughout Novato, starting with a dozen, and then 30, and then 75 as more and more Novato residents heard of the plight of the family and saw the picture of Kayla in flyers posted in storefront windows and in front of bake sales and at Dine & Donate events and Coins for Kayla drives at public schools (and soccer fields) throughout the city.
Choi, whose daughter is Kayla’s good friend, is credited by everyone with being the driving force behind the fundraising efforts. While she acknowledges being a part of this extended family, owning up to having led and coordinated the efforts, she is always quick to point out the many others who have pulled off amazing feats, particularly the fundraiser last Friday. From inception to execution took about seven weeks and a dozen coordinators, more than 50 volunteers and more than 100 donors -- resulting in more than 250 attendees.
People from all walks of life have put in to become part of Kayla Rose’s extended family. Some know her from sports where, as Fujiwara says, Kayla stood out less from athletic prowess and more from her ability to take joy in learning a new skill while at the same time bringing out the joy in others, including her coach.
There are the schoolmates of Kayla and her brother AJ at Lu Sutton and Good Shepherd.
There are the customers from The Wright Salon, where mom Annie works as a stylist at the salon owned by Kayla’s grandmother.
There are Denny’s plumbing customers.
There are fellow Good Shepherd parishioners.
And then there are the friends of friends of friends in that ever-expanding garden.
And, finally, there are the strangers who wonder, like Fujiwara does, “What if it was me and mine?”
“We don't consider ourselves any more deserving than anyone else for what we have received in support,” says Denny. “But we will always believe that Kayla is special, in more ways than anything can ever measure. She will get through this because she has so much to offer this world and this is just the beginning of her life. Her spirit is strong! She touches people everywhere she goes with her laughter, her love, and her smile and will continue to do so.”
Many of those people Kayla has touched came together last Friday and raised enough money to enable Annie and Denny to accompany their daughter back and forth for extended treatment at St. Jude’s, as both take leaves of absences in the face of the task of curing Kayla Rose.
Purple and white tablecloths were adorned with purple and white roses. Like many girls her age, Kayla’s favorite color is purple. But there was gray, too, in the ribbons displayed to represent Curing Children’s Brain Cancer. Joyfulness tempered by tears. Dancing and hugging. A family reunion of sorts.
The night included silent and live auctions of dozens and dozens of items donated from companies and individuals throughout Novato and beyond. The Hamiltones, Novato’s own “dad band,” provided the entertainment. Cadets from Novato High’s Junior ROTC program provided a mini-army to help set up and clean up the Margaret Todd Center, even donating their tips at the end of the evening to the Curing Kayla Rose fund. The highlight of the evening was the slide show created by mom Annie (see attached video).
Dad Denny said, “All that have been a part of it have worked tirelessly to put it together and we truly feel their love and spirit attached to it. I know that I just want to pick each and every one of them up and give them a huge hug so that they may be able to feel even a portion of the love that they have given us, and from the bottom of my heart thank them.”
For a bit longer, the Dehnert family doesn’t need to worry about finances. According to Choi, the Dehnerts don’t need to dwell on that part of the struggle at least through June. It’s expected that treatment will be required through October. The fundraising continues as the newly blossomed family of Kayla Rose grows.
If you would like to give – for the first time or the fifth, a little or a lot or somewhere in between – you can donate to the fund set up at Redwood Credit Union (Dehnert Family Account 1553). You can also give through Paypal at the Curing Kayla Rose blog Annie as set up.
Kayla’s family has expanded and, thanks to Kayla, those who know her have changed for the better, like Fujiwara who says, “I hug my kids a lot more. I don’t get upset over little things. I realize little things are just little things.”
The Dehnerts themselves are now backed by this newly created army of a family. Of course, their first battle is to save Kayla. But the Dehnerts are also concerned about the other families just like them facing childhood cancer head on. “Childhood cancer research is the most underfunded of all cancer, period. Most donations to cancer research only amount to one percent of funding for childhood cancer research. That's 30 cents per child! The only treatment available for cancer has a chance of causing secondary cancers. Everyone needs to know this.
"We need a cure.”